From: The Playground Project
While traveling to the Philippines in 2001, filmmaker Libby Spears gained first hand knowledge of the horrific practice of trafficking human beings for the purpose of sexual exploitation. She examined a little deeper, and discovered that most of these victims were young children.
Facing death threats to be “knocked off” for only $10, Libby went undercover to infiltrate brothels in South Korea and Thailand. She held first-hand interviews with victims, their pimps, and their abusers. She mapped the trafficking routes of the sex tourism industry, and charted the commerce fueled by the purchase and sale of minors—she was disheartened to find that virtually the entire globe was involved and affected by this growing industry.
What she was astonished to find, however, was the involvement of the United States and the degree to which they were influencing the global demand and growth of the sex trafficking industry.
Previously, she had mistakenly believed that sex trafficking was primarily an “international” occurrence in countries like Philippines and Cambodia. But a meeting with Ernie Allen, President of the National Center of Missing and Exploited Children, confirmed to Libby what her research was beginning to uncover: that the trafficking of children for commercial sexual exploitation is every bit as real in North America.
This is where Playground begins.
“Men fly into Atlanta, Georgia from all over the US to have sex with children they have purchased online. In a small, affluent, local golf community, the elementary school superintendent and local bookstore clerk are arrested on the same day in a sting operation by law enforcement officials seeking sex predators of children via the Internet.” — Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Appalled by modern day sex slavery, filmmaker Libby Spears began a covert investigation to document the worldwide child sex trafficking problem, and to see how and if it led back to the United States. What she was astonished to find, however, was the involvement of the United States and the degree to which they were influencing the global demand and growth of the sex trafficking industry.
At the heart of the story is Michelle, whose first encounter with sexual abuse began at five. Having run away from a foster care system that left Michelle vulnerable and at risk, the film opens with the filmmaker’s search for her. Over a five year period, Spears unravels the gut-wrenching atrocities suffered by Michelle and other children like her, who are victims of the American sex trafficking industry.
By gracefully weaving in interviews with vice officers and social workers — and sometimes even the pimps or johns themselves — Spears constructs an insightful, resonant, and nuanced narrative that details just how complex and massive this problem is.
Playground examines our legal and social systems, and their inability to deal with this crisis. Neither dogmatic nor sensationalist, Playground offers no clear-cut answers, but instead, compels us to begin asking questions… the right questions:
Why do we treat children as victims in cases of sexual abuse, but as soon as money is exchanged, we deem these sexually abused children as “criminals?” Why does our legal system view foreign children who are trafficked from other countries as “victims,” but treats American children who are trafficked domestically as criminals? Why is there such an overwhelming demand for sex with a child? Are we adequately teaching our children sexual respect? What message do we send as a society when we normalize Justin Timberlake’s ripping off a woman’s shirt in public, but demonize Janet Jackson for her exposed breast?
The problem is monumental: The U.S. Department of Justice claims that the commercial sexual exploitation of children is the world’s fastest growing form of organized crime. Within the next decade, the prostitution of children worldwide will net more profit than the sale of illegal drugs. In the United States alone, child sex trafficking is a multi-million dollar industry with an estimated 300,000 children annually at risk. Wherever you can buy drugs in this country, you can buy children – American children – for sex. Playground makes compellingly clear that if we’re not seeing the problem, it’s only because we’re not looking.
To offer emotional relief of the heavy subject matter, animated characters appear throughout the film as quiet punctuations. Playground employs a hand-crafted animation style that hearkens back to the early days of animation as an art form. With original illustrations created by Yoshitomo Nara, the animation allows Spears to suggest, rather than literally depict, some of the horrors of sex trafficking, and does an effective job at conveying the psychological and emotional climate suffered by the victims.
From filmmaker Libby Spears and Producers George Clooney, Grant Heslov, and Steven Soderbergh, comes a beautifully-wrought, astonishing portrait of our country’s most alarming and insidious secret — the child sex trafficking in America.